The great diversity of human emotions brings stimulating and positive variety to our lives, enhancing our emotional adventure, and facilitates meaningful and uplifting social interactions. We grow from this range of emotion and define ourselves as human because of it. Some emotions, however, can obstruct our paths to happiness, and there are some effective ways to free ourselves from these hindrances without losing what defines us as human.
Controlled levels of stress can become powerful motivators in times of laziness or complacency, and can bring valuable attention to our intuition. Coming to terms with the time constraints and limitations of our lives can certainly become influential in our desire to make positive change; however, we can do far more good with another way of thinking. Worry is far less defined than a healthy wake-up call. Worry allows cortisol to flood the brain and counter-productively cloud and distort our mental processing. In extreme cases, over-worrying can cripple the mind into inaction. We can achieve far more with intentful, positive, logical thinking.
Time spent worrying is time that could otherwise be invested positively, for example in reducing the probability of the worrying event occurring in the first place! My goal isn't to remove all worry from the world, or explain how we should feel in life, but to offer a few methods and techniques to practice controlling and minimizing this unproductive feeling, and to help build a more peaceful, productive and happy frame of mind.
It is understood that emotions and thoughts are entirely internal to our own minds (no one else can directly access our thoughts), and we interact only through external actions and experiences. Therefore, our internal thoughts are purely that: internal and exclusively ours. No one else can get in there and force you to think anything; it’s your mind. Awareness of one’s thoughts is an important fundamental capability, developed best through meditation. When we understand the properties of the emotion, we can practice training the mind to respond more effectively. Awareness leads to understanding, practice leads to control.
Worry spawns from the mind’s interpretation of external factors – past events that have happened and future events that we predict will occur. The human mind is in fact the only known entity capable of considering these two perspectives.
Let’s first look at future perspective worry, which can be divided into two categories: inevitable future events, and potentially avoidable future events.
Future Event Worry
Firstly, if there is a solution to the problem, it follows that all efforts should be focused on discovering and implementing the said solution. Worrying can cost irretrievable time. So, it's preferred to observe the environment and consider the best approach to maximize the chances of obtaining your preferred outcome. This way, whatever happens, we can be reassured that we have tried our hardest and done our best.
Secondly, if there is no solution to the problem, or if your very best efforts were not good enough to change the course of destiny, you must remember that there is no personal failure. It was an inevitable future event all along. We must accept the nature of reality, come to terms with the situation, and understand that there is no benefit to spending any time worrying—it's inevitable. Instead, our efforts can be redirected to make the most of the countless other things that are within our influence.
The ultimate goal here, is complete control over how you interpret all events, as this renders the entire concept of worry, irrelevant. Until then, however, we have a second tool to disarm worry: it involves re-framing our perspective with the question “Is it possible that this event may not even occur?”
If you catch yourself worrying about a possible future event (the week ahead perhaps), remind yourself that firstly, it's not happening right now, and that there is a chance it may not happen at all.
Any number of events could change the expected future, from winning the lottery to jury duty, an unexpected power-cut, to alien invasion or strike action. There are infinite potential interruptions to your expected future that may unfold far better than the original expected path.
A study in Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy found that 85% of the things we worry about end up having positive or neutral outcomes. Even when the outcome is negative, 79% of the time, the subjects felt they handled it better than they thought they would.
What shame to lose that unique irretrievable time worrying about something that never occurs! That we cannot tell the future can be a gift.
Furthermore, worrying can lead to unforeseen circumstances far worse than the original source of worry. Old age and retirement are certainly high-probability events (though not guaranteed), yet a life spent worrying about them increases the chances of stroke, heart attack, and is linked to the progression of dementia. Not only does the original event not occur, but something worse has grown from the worry!
So we can replace future worry with dedicated efforts, with a clear mind, to do all we can to make the happiest life we can for the present moment and for the future.
Past Event Worry
The other main source of worry is from our interpretation of past events. Just as with our blindness regarding the future, we are unable to see alternative outcomes of past events. Looking back with regret or worry that we did the wrong thing is similarly unsound, as the alternative outcome could have sparked unpredictable events leading to far greater suffering—the apocalypse of all life might sound like an exaggeration but we genuinely cannot know!
Accepting our total ignorance of these “alternative outcome universes” can be very effective in alleviating worry and unlocking the present moment for better use.
We are also products of our environments. The decisions we make are based on an opinion formed by all past experiences, so if we begrudge ourselves or others for decisions that were made, remember that at the time of the decision, we knew far less about how things would pan out than we know now.
If we worry, or if we focus on living a happy peaceful life, the past remains unchanged, but the present can be very different.
The Best Practice
For this reason, holding a present mindset becomes invaluable. It is the only perspective we can control. Since worry is typically the fear of an unknown, we must simply accept our ignorance and take the best possible actions using the knowledge we have now. If actions are taken based on what is known, we can rest assured that we did our best. If there is a solution, this approach will find it. If there is no solution, providing we do our very best, this approach absolves all guilt, worry, self-doubt and negativity. The event is simply unavoidable.
As the story goes, around 2500 years ago, a woman in India lost her son to illness and was devastated. Overwhelmed with emotion, she went to see the spiritual teacher, Gautama Buddha, hoping he would work his famous magic and bring the boy back to life. He agreed to help her in exchange for a small bag of sesame seeds. As she was leaving, he explained that the seeds must come from a household that had never experienced death. Encouraged by the Buddha’s willingness to help, she ran into town and asked her neighbors for seeds. These were abundant and a resident was happy to supply her. The lady then remembered the requirement that they come from a household in which no one had died. The resident she was dealing with solemnly replied, “Oh, sorry, my father died in this house two years ago.” Empathetically, she left and tried the next house but faced a similar experience. After countless conversations unsuccessfully searching throughout the village, she finally understood. Death is inevitable. Impermanence is the law of nature. There are some things we simply cannot avoid.
For those situations, we benefit from accepting the laws of nature and understanding the nature of the law in order to make the most of this moment we are living in. You have the option to control your thoughts and live now, taking proactive decisions, free from worry. For practical techniques to train your mind to make the most of every moment, to regain control of the thoughts, try some mind-cleaning techniques. These exercises also purge the stress hormone cortisol from the brain and reduce the adrenaline in the blood.